Dec 02 2013

Champagne Tasting

One of my primary goals for this blog is to reinforce, strongly and frequently, the notion of neuropsychological humility – the understanding that our perceptions and memories are deeply flawed and biased. There appears to be almost no limit to the extent to which people can deceive themselves into believing bizarre things.

Psychologists have documented these flaws and biases in numerous ways, and when confronted with demonstrations of such people tend to be amused, as if they were being entertained by a magic show, but do not necessarily apply the lessons to themselves and their own lives. This is one of the key differences, in my opinion, between skeptics (critical thinkers) and non-skeptics – a working knowledge of self-deception.

With that in mind, here is yet another study showing that extrinsic factors and expectation affect our sensory perceptions. I will say right off that this is a small study involving only 15 subjects, but given the nature of the results it is still useful.

The researchers tested 4 champagne experts, 6 intermediates, and 5 novices with a blinded test of 7 different champagnes and sparkling wines ranging in price from £18 to £400. In addition to being blinded to the price, they were blind-folded so they could not see the color of what they were tasting. The results were essentially all over the place, showing no clear correlation to price or expertise. The intermediates and experts rated the £40 the highest, while the novices rated the £75 the highest. The novices and intermediates rated the £400 bottle among the lowest while the experts rated it average.

That much is not surprising – price does not necessarily relate to objective quality. For those on a limited budget, it is nice to know that inexpensive sparkling wine fares just as well as pricey champagne. Essentially, find something cheap that you like.

The tasters were also asked to estimate the ratio of red to white grapes contributing to the sparkling wine/champagne. Conventional wisdom has it that this ratio primarily determines the  unique taste of each product. The study showed that even the experts were completely unable to infer this ratio from blindly tasting the sparkling wine or champagne. Rather, their judgements seemed to be influenced by dose and alcohol content.

This small study (which should be repeated with larger numbers) is in line with earlier studies showing essentially the same thing. For example, Morrot, Brochet, and Dubourdieu performed a study in which they colored white wine red, and then had 54 tasters describe the wine. They used red metaphors to describe the wine, as would typically be used to describe a red, rather than white, wine.

This demonstrates that what we see influences what we taste. There are many more examples of how one sense will influence another – essentially our brains integrate multiple sensory streams into one coherent narrative. What we experience is in no way objective, it is altered to make everything seem to fit together.

In another study researchers exposed wine tasters to positive and negative statements about the wine; they did this both before and after they tasted the wine, but before they reported their impression of the wine. The comments affected the tasters’ evaluations of the wine when they occurred before, but not after, tasting the wine. This suggests that the tasters were not just following what they were told about the wine despite their experience, but rather that the positive and negative statements actually affected their experience of the taste of the wine.

A recent analysis of wine contests over several years, including expert judges being given the same wine from the same bottle multiple times, shows general inconsistency in rating wine (poor intra-rater and inter-rater reliability).

In yet another study the price tag associated with wine affected the experience of “pleasantness” of the wine. There is a consistent pattern in the research – subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

Of course this has profound implications for areas beyond wine tasting. Suggestion and expectation, for example, would also influence our subjective reporting of symptoms in a clinical study.

Conclusion

Wine-tasting may be particularly subjective, but there is plenty of other research to indicate that the basic phenomenon of subjective experience being highly modifiable by external and internal factors, is generalizable. This has implications for everyday life, in addition to research into any subjective phenomenon.

It is for this and other reasons that good scientific protocol always strives to minimize or eliminate any subjective variables from research.

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26 responses so far

26 Responses to “Champagne Tasting”

  1. pdeboeron 02 Dec 2013 at 9:42 am

    I’m reminded of an experiment that I did in grade school. Probably grade 2. We had sugar, citric acid powder, salt and something bitter and then were told that certain zones of your tongue tasted these flavours.

    Most of you probably know this to be false. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongue_map

    But, everyone around me thought it worked. I couldn’t make it work and I just assumed I was doing it wrong. It may have been the lack of blinding that persisted this myth. The kids know there is sugar on the toothpick and they know they are touching the sweet zone of their tongue and so it works!

    I think this experiment should be retooled to teach skepticism and proper science.

  2. ca1879on 02 Dec 2013 at 9:44 am

    That pharma shill gig must be paying better than you let on, if you see a $65 bottle of plonk as a cheap bottle of sparkling wine!

  3. LittleBoyBrewon 02 Dec 2013 at 10:01 am

    One of my hobbies is brewing beer – a quite popular hobby. I have participated as an ‘official’ beer judge in the local competition for several years. These articles serve to confirm my bias – that judging is a crap shoot. Unless a beer has an obvious flaw (and trust me, some do!), attempting to be objective when tasting 10 or 12 IPAs is next to impossible. I have even noticed how my own personal mood can impact my perception. I keep my beer on tap, and one day I will pour a pint and will marvel at what an excellent and sublime example of English bitter I have created. The next evening I will be convinced the same beer was pulled from a sewer pipe.

  4. Skepticoon 02 Dec 2013 at 11:10 am

    This reminds me of a Penn & Teller “Bullshit” episode where they were getting people to taste a series of designer waters. The waiter would give the people detailed descriptions of what they were to expect with each different water, and the people rated the waters differently. They were all filled from the same garden hose out the back.

    Different subject – yesterday I was in the Apple store comparing ipads – I could barely tell the difference between the “retina” displays and the regular. Anyone else try that?

  5. LittleBoyBrewon 02 Dec 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Skeptico – the last ‘Skeptics with a K’ podcast included a discussion of display resolution and how it is rapidly becoming greater than our ability to distinguish.

  6. Steven Novellaon 02 Dec 2013 at 3:56 pm

    I saw a display of the new 4k high definition. It was stunning. I would love to see a blinded comparison. I do wonder where the limit of perception is for this. The size of the monitor is a significant factor, however. For small screens we may already be at the upper limit of perception. For large screens, I think you can still appreciate the higher resolution.

    I think audio cables is a clearer example. Speaker quality is probably where you would hear the biggest difference. Bit rate probably tops out around 56bps for voice and 96bps for music (according to my own tests), but this may vary by listener and type of music. Audio cables (as long as they are not bad) probably cannot be distinguished by most listeners.

  7. dfcwordpresson 02 Dec 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Dr Novella,

    When the Morrot, Brochet wine tasting study is mentioned, the implication is that the “tasters”, who couldn’t distinguish red from white, we’re actually tasting the wines. Certainly this was my impression when I first heard you mention it some time back on the SGU.

    However, were the tasters in fact just sniffing the wines?

    Appreciate any clarification on this one. It blows my mind that the difference between red and white couldn’t be recognised by taste! It’s still remarkable based on sniffing – I just want to be clear on what the tasters were actually doing.

  8. tmac57on 02 Dec 2013 at 7:25 pm

    dfcwordpress- It seems that the subjects were allowed to taste the wine at will,but since most flavor from wine comes from the aromas,that is where a wine taster will focus their attention. There probably were significant differences in the white vs the red, but the study seemed to show that the tasters allowed the color to unduly influence (color? ) their perceptions of the wines. My guess is that had they tasted them blindfolded,they would have done better in using more appropriate descriptors for each wine.

  9. Fair Persuasionon 02 Dec 2013 at 7:35 pm

    We hope that a great vineyards produce consistently the best tasting quality champagnes. Sometimes pricey champagnes like Kristal are variable yearly. Do popular champagnes weather their differences?

  10. johnnytucfon 02 Dec 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Reality is relative.

  11. Skepticoon 02 Dec 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Steven

    I was looking at an ipad mini. I could hardly see any difference at that size – your comment about the size of the screen is interesting.

    I’m writing this on an iMac with a 27″ screen. I’ve got nothing to compare it with directly (obviously) but it does look good.

    LittleBoyBrew

    Thanks – I’ll look into it.

  12. Kawarthajonon 02 Dec 2013 at 10:55 pm

    I love these tear-downs of snooty wines and other alcoholic drinks. Fun to learn about.

    On several occasions and just for fun, my friends and I have done blind beer tasting tests. The result is consistent – none of us could tell the expensive from the cheap, lagers from ales, etc. There was even a dark beer in the mix that none of us could accurate distinguish from the other brands. We could only pick out the IPA’s and Budweiser (which is brewed with rice and other things not normally in beer), because they have strong and distinctive tastes.

  13. tmac57on 03 Dec 2013 at 10:22 am

    Kawarthajon- I’ve done those blind tastings too,with a prize offered for the contestant who could best identify the beers. What is really fun is when you have a taster who has adamant opinions about what beer is ‘crap’ and which is his go to favorite. I had a friend who thought Coors was the tops in that class of beer,and hated almost anything else. You can guess what happened…he placed Coors dead last out of six beers,and his top pick was some discount no name.Hilarious!
    Great fun.

  14. Bronze Dogon 03 Dec 2013 at 11:02 am

    I remember when I was starting out as a skeptic, regularly reading the JREF’s Friday blog posts. One of the regular features for a while was audiophiles and these ridiculously expensive audio cables, trying to get the company and their defenders to take the million dollar challenge. It’s easy for me to imagine hipster stereotypes altering their perceptions to rationalize the overspending.

    Wine tasting also came up with a mea culpa: Randi initially dismissed the idea that the shape of the glass could change the experience, but was informed that by affecting the surface area through the shape of the glass, it affected how bubbly a drink was. Too much exposed surface, and it can go flat quickly. Narrow the glass, and the bubbles get more concentrated.

  15. The Other John Mcon 03 Dec 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Dr N: “I saw a display of the new 4k high definition. It was stunning. I would love to see a blinded comparison. I do wonder where the limit of perception is for this.”

    This depends on pixel size, viewing distance, and what we consider the “limit” of human resolution to be (standard Snellen acuity? or hyperacuity which is 10x better? or some other?).

    Just from an information processing standpoint, a single human eye has ~126 million photoreceptors, so *theoretically* is capable of processing almost 130 million pixels (130 megapixels) of visual information at any given instant in time. Even less of this information makes it out of the retina and into the visual cortex (there is some pre-processing and compression going on even at the level of the retinal cells).

    A 4k display with 16:9 format has about 4 times as many pixels as HDTV (~8 megapixel versus ~2 for HD). But 4k resolution is still ~16 times less information than the retina is capable of relaying. So there is plenty of room to go in terms of number of pixels.

    Pixel density is a whole other consideration and again, all this depends heavily on viewing distance, too…a crappy display can hit “human limited resolution” if you hold it far enough away.

  16. rocken1844on 03 Dec 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Jancis Robinson is surely one of the world’s great wine educators and yet throughout her career has informed the public to beware of higher prices as automatically indicative of higher quality. In a recent column in the Financial Times [FT.com] (Nov 01, 2013 “Value judgments: my favourite wines selling for under £10″) she discusses her favorite lower priced wines.

  17. Bruceon 04 Dec 2013 at 3:15 am

    @Bronzedog

    “I remember when I was starting out as a skeptic, regularly reading the JREF’s Friday blog posts. One of the regular features for a while was audiophiles and these ridiculously expensive audio cables, trying to get the company and their defenders to take the million dollar challenge. It’s easy for me to imagine hipster stereotypes altering their perceptions to rationalize the overspending.”

    I always found it funny that the same people who were going on about the expensive cables and wanted the most expensive speakers were the ones who went nuts over vinyl. They wanted that clearer “organic” sound.

  18. ccbowerson 04 Dec 2013 at 10:42 am

    “I saw a display of the new 4k high definition. It was stunning. I would love to see a blinded comparison. I do wonder where the limit of perception is for this.”

    I just purchased a new television (went with a soon-to-be-no-longer-available Panasonic plasma), so I did look into this question before buying, and I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter much for the way people currently watch television. Currently there is almost no 4K content, and even when content becomes available, you will have to sit very close to an extremely large screen to be able to notice meaningful differences.

    Perhaps one day this will be a factor if ~100 inch screens and/or sitting very close to the television become more common, and 4K content explodes. The higher resolution is also beneficial for certain 3D applications, but 3D seems to be increasingly recognized as an infequently used niche feature. Unfortunately, there is a bandwidth issue for 4K content- with streaming becoming a more common way to watch video, many are luck to get 720p level resolution.

    The following link discusses the 4K question pretty well:

    http://carltonbale.com/does-4k-resolution-matter/

  19. Bronze Dogon 04 Dec 2013 at 11:12 am

    Bruce:

    I always found it funny that the same people who were going on about the expensive cables and wanted the most expensive speakers were the ones who went nuts over vinyl. They wanted that clearer “organic” sound.

    There’s a Patlabor movie that featured a monster that was randomly attacking the city. The police figured out that it was attacking places that generated sound at a particular ultrasonic pitch. One of the locations was a disco that played vinyl records instead of CDs. According to the vinyl-loving police chief, vinyl records sounds outside the human range of hearing while CDs don’t.

    No idea if that’s true or not.

  20. The Other John Mcon 04 Dec 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Bruce, that was an intriguing question about vinyl…I asked around and we figured out both analog and digital recordings can definitely: (1) capture and (2) reproduce frequencies outside of human hearing, whether intentional or not (ultrasonic or subsonic noise, etc.).

    A typical CD, though, is sampled at 44.1k and thus limited by Nyquist at highest frequency of 22kHz, when typical human hearing maxes out at roughly 15 to 20kHz. Lower frequencies are not effected by a similar limit but may be filtered out by the recording media, or not reproducible by the speakers (who wants subsonic speakers?).

    Very interesting thought-experiment, though, thanks!…gotta love those vinyl-lovers

  21. The Other John Mcon 04 Dec 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Bruce and Bronze Dog, i meant to address that to.

  22. tmac57on 04 Dec 2013 at 8:37 pm

    For some reason,CD’s seem to lack that interesting tick tick tick tick sound that vinyl lovers treasure so much.
    Mmmmmmm…good times.

  23. ChrisHon 05 Dec 2013 at 3:05 am

    Bronze Dog:

    According to the vinyl-loving police chief, vinyl records sounds outside the human range of hearing while CDs don’t.

    It does not matter what they can record if the speakers cannot produce those frequencies. Some speakers have physical limits on how fast those magnets can vibrate!

  24. ChrisHon 05 Dec 2013 at 3:08 am

    Oh, The Other John Mc addressed the speaker issue.

  25. Fair Persuasionon 14 Dec 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Went to a tasting, and its true it is hard to distinguish quality champagnes and popular ones. 2005 Kristal has a nutty flavour. Moet and Chandon Nectar Imperial is smoothly sweet. Happy Holidays to all who celebrate the holidays.

  26. BEVERLYon 16 Dec 2013 at 1:17 am

    It is funny how when our eyes open we find expensive things delightful and fascinating, we never realize that the inexpensive is so much better because we are blinded by the popularity of that expensive things. The champagne tasting while blind folded is really a great idea to prove that costly does not necessarily means its the best quality.

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